Managing health and safety effectively in schools

Issue: Volume 99, Number 20

Posted: 22 December 2020
Reference #: 1HAFsF

A Waikato secondary school shares some lessons learned from an unfortunate accident that occurred in 2018.

Two years ago, Forest View High School in Tokoroa experienced an accident resulting in injury to a staff member and student as they fell nearly five metres from a scaffold in their school auditorium. Both suffered head and bone injuries.

The accident happened in the early morning when lighting was being set up for a production. The cause of the accident was the scaffold being pulled along using the rigging bar with people on the platform; it toppled over as it became unstable.

Staff acted quickly and followed advice of the emergency service providers. The injured were taken to Tokoroa Hospital and then to Waikato Hospital when the severity of their injuries was realised. Unfortunately, further distress was caused to the family of the student when they were advised by emergency services to go directly to the hospital rather than come to the school. This caused a delay of more than an hour before the parents were able to see their son. The school apologised for the hurt this caused.

Worksafe New Zealand was notified and a full investigation was held with the auditorium being closed until a clearance was received allowing it to re-open. Following the process with Worksafe, the Forest View High School Board of Trustees were charged and had to attend court, and engage in a legal process and restorative justice meetings.

As a new principal to the school in 2019, Jocelyn Hale was unaware this accident had happened the year before, as she had not seen it reported in the media and it was thought a charge would not eventuate.

“Once on staff as a first-time principal I had to quickly upskill myself in not only the situation but also all the Health and Safety legislation relating to this case. The lawyers appointed to the school were very helpful in this process and I am thankful to them for their guidance,” says Jocelyn.

Key findings

  • Unfortunately, many practices had developed over the years in order to save money as the school’s roll declined. This in turn meant that staff were aiming to be helpful by doing things themselves. Buying a scaffold to adjust and fit new light bulbs in spotlights in the rigging was simply part of the usual process.
  • The Board of Trustees was unaware of many of the practices which happened regularly in the school despite the fact they were responsible for ensuring safe practices existed, such as the use of the scaffolding.
  • There was no regular Health and Safety report to the Board of Trustees each meeting updating them on Health and Safety matters.
  • The Health and Safety Committee had gaps in its functioning.

Changes made since this accident

  • A Health and Safety Officer has been elected by staff. This must happen every two years yet had not happened for at least five years previously.
  • Each month a report to the Board of Trustees on Health and Safety is presented.
  • There is now a dedicated Health and Safety budget which is used to rectify any issues raised immediately.
  • Any work to be done at heights, such as changing light bulbs in the gymnasium or auditorium, is contracted out to a local electrician firm, which uses a scissor lift with certified staff.
  • The scaffolding is locked away and not able to be used by anyone who is not trained to work at heights and must be supervised by the Health and Safety Officer.
  • Safety systems for trips and in school activities that carry any risk go through a thorough process before taking place. This includes activities like onsite hangi. 

Lessons learned

  • It is a good idea to walk the Board around the school regularly so they can see the true extent of the property and facilities they are responsible for in terms of maintenance and safety. This allows them to have a clear picture when discussions are happening in Board meetings and to ask safety related questions during the walk around.
  • The Health and Safety budget is never large enough, however it is important issues notified are remedied urgently.
  • New people to a school bring a fresh set of eyes to the place. Ask them to spot any Health and Safety concerns they see on their induction to the school.
  • Ensure all safety systems are up to date including electrical testing and tagging. Safety systems need to use the latest forms e.g. from EONZ for trips outside the school and Health and Safety legislation for activities within.
  • Ensure all senior staff and those responsible for Health and Safety and Education Outside the Classroom are trained regularly.
  • Ensure staff are not made to feel they need to take shortcuts to save money - no one's life is worth the risk of doing things to save money. It is always good to remind staff of the safety expectations of the school.
  • If unsure of appropriate systems or practices, call on a colleague in another school who will usually be only too happy to assist.

The teacher who was injured retired last year and is enjoying his retirement. The student was able to get involved in activities again last year and walked the Tongariro Crossing and competed in the 100 metres race at school athletics. He is now studying at tertiary level.

As part of the resulting court case in 2019, Forest View High School was asked to publish this case study of their experience to share with other schools. 

More information about the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 and its regulator Worksafe, is available here(external link). Under this legislation a PCBU, a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers. A PCBU may be an individual person or an organisation and includes school boards of trustees. The primary duty of care at a school is the responsibility of the board of trustees. More information for schools can be found on the Worksafe website(external link). Further information on health and safety requirements and guidance for schools can also be on the Ministry of Education website(external link).  

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:36 am, 22 December 2020

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